I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War Edited by Chris Green

I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War (Big Shoulders Books, 96 pp.) is a book I will long remember. This volume, edited by Chris Green with a foreword by Jim Fairhall (both of whom are English professors at DePaul University), contains the largest collection of essays with the fewest number of sentences I have ever read.

Green invited fifty Chicago veterans to share their memories from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The common theme of “war is hell” flows through all the essays. Contributors were asked to begin with the words “I remember.” The greatest difficulty was finding veterans of America’s latest conflict, as less than one percent of the population served in Iraq or Afghanistan. “It seems America no longer goes to war, the military does,” Green writes.

The veterans’ memories are not presented chronologically by war. Instead, one writer remembers his part in Bosnia, while the next, say, is talking about his experiences in Vietnam. The memories, however, are clearly written, and the reader can easily identify the war being discussed. If there is any doubt, the wars each writer took part in are identified at the end of the book.

The uniqueness of I Remember is that one or more sentences often tell a story of their own. Such as: ”I remember the abrupt claps of gunfire and the rude whistling of rounds,” and “I remember Fort Polk, autumn 1968. Night training, ITT. Parachute flares descending, an ambient glow penetrating the forest canopy,” and “I remember …shots.”

And:  “I remember the right wall opened up, and the engine carried them out of the plane,”   “I remember I raced away from the plane. I knew my hands were burning and I think my head was too,” and “I remember the hot, dry air. I remember my life was about to change forever. I remember the distance growing louder. I remember the explosion. I remember the sirens and alarms. I was not at home. I was in Afghanistan. I remember my first indirect fire.”

Jasmine Clark’s collection of photographs enhance the reading. Many are complete stories in themselves. One photo by Rolando Zavala depicts a group of soldiers resting in a hut. That image will be etched on my brain forever.

One of the book’s photos from the Vietnam War

The final veteran’s entry made a most unusual observation: “I remember the love. You probably have the wrong idea about war. War isn’t about hate: it’s about love. Hate has no place in war. You shoot any person not because you hate him, or you hate his ideology, or because crazy old Sgt. Hubble told you to. You do it because he’s trying to kill somebody you love.”

This book is notable for its simple style and depth. It will be of benefit to anyone looking to understand the experience of war. This is a worthwhile work of wartime literature that will long be remembered.

The nonprofit publisher, Big Shoulders Books, which is associated with DePaul University’s Master or Arts in Writing and Published program, is offering this book without charge. To order, go to http://bigshouldersbooks.com/new-page

—Joseph Reitz

War: The Eighty Greatest Esquire Stories of All Time

War: The Eighty Greatest Esquire Stories of All Time (Byliner, $3.99) is a digital book that, as the title says, contains a huge collection of essays about war that appeared in the pages of Esquire magazine.

Those essays include three seminal pieces of writing about the Vietnam War:

John Sack’s 33,000-word “M” (the longest article ever in the magazine), from the October 1966 issue, in which the author wrote about an Army company that he followed from basic training at Fort Dix to combat in Vietnam.

Michael Herr’s “Hell Sucks,” a new journalism piece of reporting about the situation in Vietnam after the 1968 Tet Offensive, which formed the foundation for Herr’s famed novelistic book of war reporting, Dispatches.

Marine Vietnam veteran William Broyles Jr.’s 1984 essay, “Why Men Love War,” in which he writes:

“Ask me, ask any man who has been to war about his experience, and chances are we’ll say we don’t want to talk about it—implying that we hated it so much, it was so terrible, that we would rather leave it buried. And it is no mystery why men hate war. War is ugly, horrible, evil, and it is reasonable for men to hate all that.

“But I believe that most men who have been to war would have to admit, if they are honest, that somewhere inside themselves they loved it too, loved it as much as anything that has happened to them before or since. And how do you explain that to your wife, your children, your parents, or your friends?”

—Marc Leepson

Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors edited by Susan Swartwout

Susan Swartwout announces in the introduction to Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 256 pp., $15) that the intent of this anthology is that it “will become an annual series.”  Swartwout, a professor of English at Southeast Missouri State, also is the director of the University Press. The book is a co-production of the Press, the Missouri Humanities Council’s Veterans Projects, and the Warrior Arts Alliance.

This anthology contains excellent writing dealing with America’s wars, from World War II up to and including our current wars. It is hard to tell at a glance which war gets the major attention.

I was pleased to note the title of the first piece in the book, “First Day at An Khe.”  Monty Joynes’s short story sets a high standard for the rest of the book as it is one of the most powerful, moving, and well written-stories of the Vietnam War I’ve ever read.

Monty Jooynes

Monty Joynes

Phil, a corpsman, arrives in country and without being in-processed is dumped into triage duty for days to deal with an onslaught of the wounded and dying. The First Sergeant of the Hospital company abandons Phil to those duties, which he bravely does until he’s covered with blood, excrement, and vomit and passing out from fatigue and hunger. All the horrifying essence of the carnage of the Vietnam War is distilled and encapsulated in this superb story.  Joynes is the fiction winner for this collection, chosen by William Trent Pancoast, author of Wildcat.

I can’t give this level of attention to every piece in this collection, but I assure prospective readers that this anthology is the best you’ll ever find. The World War II entry by Paul Mims, “Rockhappy, 1944-45,” is as worthy as the An Khe piece, but as different as it can be. There’s some of the flavor of Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, but with elements of Catch-22 madness. Mark Bowden was the judge who picked this nonfiction piece as a winner.

I usually am not much impressed by the quality of war poetry in a mixed genre anthology, but I had high hopes for the poetry in this collection because the judge was Brian Turner, author of Here Bullet.  My high hopes for Gerado Mena’s “Baring the Trees” were not dashed. There were echoes of Villon’s more doom-laden poetry in Trees, but it was still totally its own poem. Great stuff.

This anthology is a deluxe production in every way—the cover art, editing, proof reading. The reader can dip into it and find excellence on every page.

My favorite piece in the book is Russell Reece’s Vietnam War story, “In Less Than a Minute.”  It is an up-river Mekong journey into the horrifying Heart of Darkness that was the Vietnam War, just seven pages but more memorable and powerful than dozens of full-length Vietnam War novels I have read.

Buy this anthology and keep it by your bedside to dip into and read before you turn out the lights at night. That practice will guarantee nightmares about America’s choice to engage the world in one war after the other. This anthology is one of the few positive byproducts of our national predilection for war.

—David Willson